On Sunday, the Cherubs will have lived with us for six months! Six months is a big deal in the adoption from foster care world, because that’s how long you have to live together before you can finalize the adoption.
They’ve been marking off the days toward that date with a mixture of terror (that we won’t come through, that we’ll abandon them) and hope (that we will come through, that this really is forever).
A lot has changed in six months. Not just the obvious stuff, but small things. For example, just recently, one of the kids started to hug me back. Before, hugs were tolerated well but not reciprocal. Now they’re a source of laughter as the kids roll their eyes & joke that we hug them all the time. That’s a big win. I’m glad I didn’t know it would take this long. And yet it reminds me that this bonding thing is real. It takes effort and focus, even on days I don’t have much to give (and on days I have a lot to give that the kids don’t feel safe enough to want). But love accumulates. Over time it melts the ice holding their hearts captive.
I know many of you are thinking about adoption, so I thought I’d take a minute and share some of the things that have worked in this ice-melting process. Each one of them came from something I read before – I’m not inventing sliced bread here. But back when I read these things, they seemed so counter-intuitive, I couldn’t imagine that they’d work. But they do. So here they are, in no particular order:
Structure. Okay, I lied already. There is an order here. Structure is the #1 thing that will get you through the early months of adoption. I don’t care if your kids are six months or sixteen years. They will be FREAKING OUT at the prospect of living forever with you (you unknown weird grown up who is now supposed to be their new Mom or Dad), and have no idea how to be or what to do. It is your job to TELL THEM and even more so to SHOW THEM. Decide what your day will look like – in 5 to 10 minute increments if necessary – and then do that, every single day.
Our kids know that on weekdays, Steve & I get up an hour before we wake them up. They’ll hear him get ready for work, and me come down for coffee, then again for a second cup. They know when I’ll wake them up and that I’ll ask them softly about breakfast while giving them a hug. It took awhile for them to trust that I wouldn’t oversleep, or forget to pack their lunch. But I’m gaining some credibility as the successful wakeups pile up. (See love accumulates, above). On weekends, they know we’ll be down for coffee sometime around 8:00 and that we make breakfast at 9:00.
Our kids are older, so a lot of our structure came from them: they like to do homework right when they get home from school while they have a snack. I added the expectation that they have some sort of “blow off steam” activity outside after that, unless we’re in a downpour or temps are in the low 20s. I hadn’t planned to limit screen time, to be honest (please don’t tell them). But they expected it, and set their own limit at half an hour. So we go with it, and try to remember to enforce this rule we didn’t create. And bedtime is EARLY. They argue with this almost every night, and almost every night are sound asleep within 20 minutes.
My hard lesson in this has been that my kids don’t want choices. Choices are overwhelming right now. They want to know what to do so they can focus their energy on doing it, and on finding their way in this new life. Even when they don’t like what they’re supposed to do, dislike is better than uncertainty.
All the good stuff comes from us. This was one surprised me: the idea that bonding is facilitated by becoming THE SOLE go-to people your kids must go to for getting needs met. It made sense once I thought about it. If kids have spent their lives cultivating a wide assortment of adult relationships because they didn’t have primary people to count on (many children in foster care are ASTONISHINGLY good with adults for this reason), that’s a tough habit to shake. For Steve & me to become more than just two more faces in the crowd, we needed to become the PROVIDERS OF ALL THE THINGS.
This was easy with stuff we could shop for: clothes, room decor, bikes, etc. It was more challenging with food. The kids are great cooks, and they love it. But I realized early on that they needed the experience of being cooked for. They needed to see one of their parents do all the things to feed them – earning the money, buying the food, planning the meal, preparing it, etc. I can’t quite explain how, but this has helped them figure out the divide between what parents do and what kids do. We also do this with laundry. They know how to do laundry. They’re learning what it’s like to have someone love them enough to take the heaps of smelly chaos they bring to the hamper and return them in orderly piles. Part of adoptive parenting is parenting in reverse – helping kids who know how to DO learn how to trust and be cared for.
This provision theme included their birthdays (where they received nice gifts from a few others, but most came from us), and Christmas (where “Santa” will only get credit for small stocking stuffers, but all the other gifts – big & small, fun & practical – are labeled, “With love from Mom & Dad.”)
One thing that has been unexpectedly helpful in this is the rule that our kids can’t ride in a car with anyone who has not been through a CORI background check with DCF. The CORI office is incredibly backlogged – a couple of forms friends submitted over the summer STILL have not come through. Practically speaking, this means is that if our kids go anywhere, they go there with us. School drop off & pickup is ALMOST ALWAYS Mom, sometimes Dad, and once Grandma. (It felt like a huge win that when I told them Grandma would be picking them up they cheered – it seemed like a fun change of pace rather than me abandoning them for something more important. This was PROGRESS.)
Also, we can’t leave the kids alone, even though they’re at an age where they would normally be starting to be trusted with that for short periods. So if I’m running errands, they’re running errands. If THIS DOG needs a walk at an unplanned time, we’re all trudging around the block together. And while the Cherubs balked at this as absolutely ridiculous when we first started out together (seriously, they were SALTY), over time I think they’ve realized this means, a.) we’re people who follow rules rather than bending them and that feels safe; and b.) we want them with us, even when they’re sulking and grumpy.
Which leads me to…
Escape. Steve plays hockey two mornings a week before work. I get together with a friend for food & grown up beverages once a week. These are automatic activities, non-negotiable. They keep us sane.
Picking Our Worries. Our children are not learning Mandarin this week, or computer coding, or training for the Olympic rowing team. They each have a school subject they’re not doing particularly well in, and you know what? I kind of don’t care. They’re both doing better than I did, grade wise, and I believe that it will turn out okay. Our primary focus is that they come to know that God loves them and we love them, and that there are healthy, life-giving ways to respond to these realities.
A song that captures this experience for me is Love Feels Like by Toby Mac:
Poured out, used up, still giving…stretching me out to the end of my limits. This is what love feels like.
It’s worth everything you put in.